Why Google's PowerMeter Gadget Partnership Is a Big Power Play

[qi:_earth2tech] With Google’s endless projects — from book search to a browser killer to Blogger — you’re probably wondering why I’m so excited about a new partnership deal for the company’s PowerMeter energy management tool. Well, here’s why: For the first time, consumers can now access PowerMeter via a gadget called the TED-5000, made by startup Energy Inc., and users don’t need to go through their utility or have a smart meter (a digital two-way electricity meter) installed to access it. In other words, Google has finally bypassed the utility with PowerMeter, which is an important step for both bringing consumer energy management products to the mainstream, and pushing utilities to more quickly embrace information technology networks and broadband.

Smart meters are great, but the problem is that just a little over 6 percent of households in the U.S. currently have them. While that percentage will grow dramatically in the coming years, it will take time, and PowerMeter’s former smart grid strategy would have meant the tool was only available to a small portion of the population for quite some time. The other drawback to the smart meter architecture is that utilities are installing smart meters attached to networks that aren’t exactly the most robust. Utilities commonly build networks that can significantly delay the time it takes the energy information to reach the customer — smart meters will often grab energy info every 15 minutes to an hour, but then the utility network will bring that data to the data center and display it back to the customer in a 24-hour period.

The result is that energy info coming off of smart meters will often be a day old. Delayed information could be a big problem when it comes to using the data to change consumers’ energy behavior. As Carrie Armel, research associate at Stanford’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, told me back in June, the more frequently energy data is given to the consumer, the more engaged the consumer is likely to be. But now that PowerMeter has hooked up with TED, users can get their energy information almost immediately on their PC or other mobile device.

Google also brings much-needed attention to the TED device, which was one of the first energy management gadgets available to U.S. consumers (the company was founded back in 2001), as well as raises the visibility of energy management products in general. TED-5000 users can opt to have their information compared with other PowerMeter users, which could someday be a sizable community. I’ve always wondered whether or not a social network could actually work to change energy consumption behavior — if implemented successfully, Google’s PowerMeter community could be the first one to do so.

Perhaps the biggest benefit for PowerMeter sidestepping the utility, is that it could help utilities realize the power of energy information and the importance of the networks that will be managing the flow of that information. Utilities haven’t traditionally been very good at IT — they haven’t had to be — but that’s all changing, and next-generation utilities will need to be as proficient in running data networks as they are at managing power networks. Some forward-thinking utilities like San Diego Gas & Electric know that and are building multimillion-dollar wireless networks to manage their smart grid deployments. PowerMeter and the TED-5000 are just a small piece of that equation, but they’re an important first step in giving consumers easy access, and ownership over, their energy information.

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